How Yoga Makes the World Better

09/18/2017 05:17 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2017
Sunset yoga with goats: Joyous and fun but also an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness? Let your mind wander and yo
Sunset yoga with goats: Joyous and fun but also an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness? Let your mind wander and you’re gonna drop that baby.

By now I’ve incorporated the best part of my own yoga practice, the mindfulness part, into my running. But it’s also what gets me through a stressful day or a less-than-perfect commute. It’s a habit now for me to remain in the moment so that when even a little shit happens, I’m able to take a step back, provide some space between my emotions and my actions by giving myself time to curate my thoughts and put them into perspective.

What if everyone around me took a few breaths before cursing out a distracted driver or a slow poke in the cross walk? I want you to get some yoga. I want everyone around the world to get some yoga. What I really want is for the world around me to be less toxic, to be a little nicer.

Can yoga do that?

I was thinking about this when I had the chance to speak with David Lipsius, president and CEO of Yoga Alliance, about the state of yoga in America today. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

Carolee Belkin Walker: Hi, David. A friend sent me a photo her son took of her doing yoga with goats. He was home for a few weeks before returning to college and they wanted to find something to do together that might be interesting.

But yoga with goats? Is this a trend?

DL: Yoga is a practice to change consciousness and that can happen on the mat or off. It's the attitude and the intention and the goals that we bring to the practice that matter most.

CBW: My friend loved it. She loved it.

DL: People enjoying something is an important factor here.

Yoga is like a vast ocean. An endlessly deep ocean of wisdom that's available to us, but for me personally and for others I think who have admitted it, that deep ocean is a lot to drink from so we enter from a river or a stream or a small tributary miles away from the ocean. So there's something to be said for celebrating individual human beings and where they might enter the stream of yoga. All of those rivers and tributaries and streams are going to flow into that ocean ultimately. And so not judging what other people are doing but recognizing that anybody stepping into a stream of yoga as long as it has the consciousness into it is a positive force and will have a beautiful ripple effect out to other people and not just to that person.

Historically there's also something funny that I always think about, which is the yogis who first practiced yoga were not in bamboo-floored, temperature-controlled studios with hot and cold showers and all the amenities, right? They were practicing in fields and in mountains and in caves and in temples and wherever. The external was not the important factor.

So knowing that they were practicing with cows and tigers and snakes and spiders and other creatures around also gives me a little bit of a laugh sometimes to say, like of all things, goat yoga, in particular, is not the worst thing I've ever heard of.

CBW: Good point.

DL: If doing some yoga postures with some cute goats around is bringing a smile to someone's face and lighting up their day and taking away some of the burden of modern society, then that's a good thing. We should consider whether someone has received benefits that ultimately benefit society - if that person becomes happier and healthier.

CBW: Is that the ripple effect you mentioned?

DL: Yes. The most important trend I'm seeing in yoga is the trend toward giving back in the form of service. There's been a shift in consciousness, which is what yoga is about, ultimately, that is taking it away from the individual practices that many of us have been doing for many years and reflecting that back into, well, how is that making us better people? How is it helping our community?

CBW: I know it’s in my best interest to be happier but I realize the world can be a rough place sometimes. If other people around me are doing what they need to be doing to become more resilient and happier, in essence, the world around me is simply nicer. Is that why we’re seeing yoga in hospitals, prisons, schools, etc.?

DL: Definitely. The interest in applying the tools of yoga and seeing the benefits of yoga – self-regulation, resilience, tolerance, happiness, health, positive mental attitudes – are beginning to be seen as valuable in areas that were less traditional 5, 10, or 15 years ago. And so as yoga has exploded in popularity in the mainstream, it naturally has begun to open doors into other areas where people may need those tools, too. Yoga teachers are thinking about where they can serve beyond the studio - asking where else they can make a difference. What is really interesting about the field today is how yoga is entering places it wasn’t necessarily welcome not too long ago and how people can benefit even if they are unable to get to a yoga studio, for example.

CBW: That’s a good point. I’m training for the Marines Corps Marathon so while I’m adding more mileage and more sleep and recovery I’m unsure how to place yoga into my training schedule or when I can fit in an actual yoga class. But I still want the benefits of yoga.

DL: Sure. Yoga is frequently seen as an activity and something to be scheduled, but in a lot of ways it's an outcome. It's a way of being. And so we need to practice that way of being on the mat, for instance, but the real outcome, the goal, is to be able to practice the yoga, the mindfulness, the awareness, the self-regulation, the connection to breath, the connection to body, the connection to mind, the seeing of a higher self, off the mat. The full picture of yoga only begins to emerge once we bring the lessons learned from the mat into our daily lives.

CBW: Or into our running.

DL: Yeah. Yoga or any mindfulness practice allows us to watch our thoughts, feelings, and emotions without judging them. Self-observation without judgment. And so whether you're a beginner runner struggling with body image or comparing yourself with other competitors around you or with your own history of health or happiness or if you’re a beginner in yoga or meditation trying to fit in and somehow believing that the goal is to coral the mind, or to force it to be still, these are unrealistic expectations that we place upon ourselves as we begin the journey. And much like a runner wouldn't intentionally go out and run a marathon on the first day of running, the tools of yoga, and the practices of yoga, in addition to mindfulness, are all designed to systematically bring us to a place where we can achieve self-observation without judgment.

The self-observation part comes from noticing that those thoughts and feelings and emotions don't stop. And the goal is not necessarily to stop them, to have them cease existing within our mind, but to watch them and to notice that they are fleeting, that they're constantly changing and shifting.

CBW: So we should not become attached to any one of them.

DL: Right. One great yoga teacher talks about it this way: there's the sky and then there's the weather. Whether you’re practicing yoga on a mat or sitting down and practicing yoga as a meditative practice or practicing yoga as you run, we need to understand that we’re the sky, not the weather. The thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, they’re the weather. They will pass and change.

CBW: How interesting.

DL: To take it out of the esoteric, the beauty of those lessons as we learn them is, then you go about your day, and someone cuts you off in traffic, or someone says something rude, or someone does something that you don't like, and we begin to notice that we don't have to automatically react to that thought or that feeling or that emotion that's surfacing, but we can pause in that self-reflection. We can pause in that moment and then choose an outcome that we want.

And that is specifically the way in which yoga makes the world better, because if we were all able to take those moments of pause in between, before reacting to every thought, feeling, and emotion we have, we'd be making choices from a different place, a place of that clear, blue sky that is vast and limitless and really has all the potential in the world, as opposed to maybe the narrow confines that we've constructed around ourselves when we are simply reacting.

Want to try yoga for the first time or see how yoga can help you find the joy in running? Check out yoga: learn easy pose or tips to making you a more joyful runner.

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